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The largest country in Western Europe, France consists of a metropolitan core, bordering Spain, Andorra, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium and numerous overseas territories around the world, with varying degrees of autonomy. Having been at times a kingdom, a republic and an empire, it currently operates under a 1958 constitution as a representative democracy with a strong executive, the powers and responsibilities of which are divided between a president and a prime minister. Largely compliant with human rights standards, particular concerns have been raised about perceptions and treatment of children from minority or vulnerable background - particularly those from Roma or travelling communities.
France is the largest country in Western Europe, extending from the English Channel and North Sea to the Mediterranean. In addition to its European territory, known as Metropolitan France or colloquially as l'Hexagone, the French Republic also incorporates five overseas departments: Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion, Mayotte and French Guiana, in addition to numerous other territories, collectivities and dependencies around the world. Metropolitan France incorporates, in addition to the continental territory itself, the island of Corsica.
Metropolitan France borders Spain, Andorra, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium.
Population and Language
The population is predominantly ethnic French, descended from a variety of different historical groups and peoples. The second largest ethnic group is reckoned to be people of Italian origin, at around eight per cent of the population. France is also home to a significant number of people who originate from the former colonial territories - in particular North and sub-Saharan Africans but also a significant number from the French West Indies and South East Asia. There is also a notable Basque minority. Exact demographic breakdown can be difficult to determine precisely, since recording of ethnic background by census is forbidden under the French constitution.
In terms of religion, France maintains a policy of state secularism. Most of the population is nominally Roman Catholic, with a minority of between five and ten percent being Muslim and smaller groups of Protestants, Jews and members of other faiths.
History and Politics
The First World War devastated France, then in its Third Republic era. During the inter war years, French policy was to avoid at all costs having to fight a similar battle on French soil again - this failed and led to occupation and the installation of an authoritarian collaborationist regime during the Second World War. Victory over the Axis powers saw the proclamation of a Fourth Republic, but also the crumbling of France’s colonial empire. Defeat in Indochina and the increasingly realisation that French control of Algeria was untenable led to the threat of a military revolt and the proclamation of Fifth Republic, with a new constitution and headed by Charles De Gaulle, in 1958. The new constitution allowed former French territories to begin asserting their independence.
Since the birth of the fifth republic, France has retreated slightly from the world stage and has become an integral part of the European Union. It does still makes its presence felt in international affairs, however, most recently through the 2013 military intervention in Mali. France remains particularly influential in its former African possessions, colloquially known as Françafrique, with strong economic and political ties - sometimes amounting to unwelcome interference.
Under the Fifth Republic, France has a strong executive, headed by the President and Prime Minister. The President has substantial powers, including the right to name the Prime Minister (though this can be overturned by a hostile legislature). The French presidency carries more day to day involvement in government than the equivalent office in many other European Republics. The legislature consists of two houses - a national assembly and a senate, both elected on regular cycles. The French legal system is based on Civil Law - it is, in fact, one of the original models for such a system, setting an example followed by countries around the world. France has two separate supreme courts - the Court of Cassation and the Council of State, which handle Civil or Criminal law and Administrative law respectively. There is also a Constitutional Council, who check legislation's conformity to the principles of the constitution.
France has one of the strongest economies in the world. Formerly heavily controlled by the state, the French economy liberalised significantly during the 1980s. GDP per capita is around $35,500. The French economy is spread across all sectors, although the late twentieth century saw a major shift towards services and away from industry. Aviation, machinery and transport equipment remain major manufacturing sectors, though. As the home of some of the worlds most notable brands, luxury goods are also a high profile French export - this has led to significant political pressure to target not just those who produced fake branded product but those who buy them too. While France itself has recovered relatively well from the recession of the late 2000s, its membership of the Euro has left it potentially exposed to an crisis emerging from amongst the peripheral economies - most notably Greece and Spain. Potential divisions over how best to ensure the future viability of the single currency between France and its main economic partner Germany could well lead to political troubles in years to come.
Media and Civil society
France enjoys an active and engaged civil society, along with generally good levels of political freedoms and civil rights. Press freedom is generally strong, ranking 37th in Reporters Without Borders Freedom Index. Though laws do exist that, theoretically, forbid insulting certain senior figures in the republic, in reality these do little to limit debate. Attacks on journalist and publishers by private organisations and interests who object to their output is not unknown, however - most notably the burning of the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2011 after publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that were considered offensive by some in the Muslim community.
France has an active and engaged civil society and is home to the headquarters of several international NGOs. The rule of law in generally respected and concerted efforts are made to deal with corruption. Even the president, while immune to prosecution while in office, upon stepping down may find themselves the subject of investigation for prior questionable conduct - this has been the case with both Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac.
Child Rights and Human Rights
Generally, France maintains a very high standard of human rights and actively engages with UN mechanisms. Concerns persist, however, particularly around treatment of minorities and issues around immigration. Concerns about the non-integration of various minority groups, particularly Muslims, have lead to targeted and potentially discriminatory measures. In 2010, for example, a bill banned the wearing of clothing that covered the face in public spaces, clearly intended to target Muslim women who wear the full face veil or niqab. As well as an infringement of religious freedoms, these policies have been accused of promoting an atmosphere or distrust and hostility between communities - accusations of police forcibly unveiling women, for example, have provoked riots and social unrest. Successive French governments have also pursued policies targeting Roma people, including forcible evictions, destruction of travellers camps and mass deportations. It has been suggested that in addition to the direct material harm this inflicts upon those targeted, this also contributes to a general societal atmosphere of intolerance and hostility towards these groups.
France has also been criticised for its treatment of migrant children - particularly the conditions persisting at major airports, where children are often detained apart from their parents in “transit zones”. While the French government claims that these areas are not technically French territory, giving the children no rights under French law, this argument has been strongly criticised. Even were it valid, the fact that children are regularly handcuffed, strip searched, subject to intrusive questioning, detained with adults, denied care and subject to summary deportation violates international human rights standards that apply above and beyond domestic law. This practice has been criticised by NGOs and UN bodies.
France has a reservation on article 30 of the CRC, concerning the rights of children from minorities to enjoy their own culture, profess their own religion and practice their own language, on the basis that it contravenes constitutional guarantees of equal treatment regardless of origin. The committee does not concur with this assessment and has repeatedly asked France to withdraw their reservation on this matter.
- Human Rights Watch Will the Summer of 2013 Be Any Different for Roma in France?
- Human Rights Watch Lost in Transit Insufficient Protection for Unaccompanied Migrant Children at Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport
- Defence for Children International Rights of the Child in France